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Come Back, You Bastards!

Graham Robb: Who cut the tow rope?, 5 July 2007

Medusa: The Shipwreck, the Scandal, the Masterpiece 
by Jonathan Miles.
Cape, 334 pp., £17.99, April 2007, 978 0 224 07303 5
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... French by the Treaties of Paris (1814 and 1815). The captain, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, was, in Jonathan Miles’s words, ‘a rusty relic from the Ancien Régime who had not put to sea for about a quarter of a century’. When it ran aground, the Medusa had become separated from the rest of the expedition. There wasn’t enough room in its longboats ...

At Hyde Park Corner

Jonathan Meades: The Bomber Command Memorial , 25 October 2012

... monument – which is perfectly pitched, moving and vast. Without that vastness, legible from miles away, the structure’s emotional charge (or ability to trick) would be mitigated. There is, in public or collective monuments, just as there is in religious buildings, a truistic equation between size and contemplative efficacy, between size and the ...

Blighted Plain

Jonathan Meades: Wiltshire’s Multitudes, 6 January 2022

The Buildings of England: Wiltshire 
by Julian Orbach, Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry.
Yale, 828 pp., £45, June 2021, 978 0 300 25120 3
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... the ruins of this little-known venture, even if he has overlooked the remaining reservoir five miles south-east of Salisbury at a thickly wooded place of knee-deep leafmeal and perpetual dusk called Pope’s Bottom. It is now a coarse fishery which abuts the estate of Clarendon Park. The omission of this great house from the first edition was ...

Under the Staircase

Karl Whitney: Hans Jonathan, Runaway Slave, 19 October 2017

The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan 
by Gisli Palsson, translated by Anna Yates.
Chicago, 288 pp., £19, October 2016, 978 0 226 31328 3
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... In the spring​ of 1801 a young man called Hans Jonathan left the mansion in Copenhagen where he worked as a slave. Going for a walk was allowed: despite his status, he had a degree of autonomy within the walls of the city, then a thriving port with around one hundred thousand inhabitants. But this time he didn’t return ...

War is noise

Jonathan Raban: Letters from My Father, 17 December 2020

... Anzio​ is about 120 nautical miles from Salerno, on the west coast of Italy, and in January 1944 a convoy of 374 Allied ships took 25 hours to get there, at an average speed of barely five knots. They crawled towards their destination, trying to make as little giveaway whitewater wake as possible, and allowing for the blunt, roll-on, roll-off bows of so many of their number ...

Planes, Trains and SUVs

Jonathan Raban: James Meek, 7 February 2008

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent 
by James Meek.
Canongate, 295 pp., £16.99, February 2008, 978 1 84195 988 7
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... the resort island of Chincoteague in Virginia, to an inconclusive but foreboding ending set a few miles from Basra, during the Iraq invasion of March 2003. True to its thriller form, the book is, as I found to my cost close to 4 a.m. one morning, damnably hard to put down. Meek is a terrific describer: he can bring a landscape to life on the page with two or ...

Prince and Pimp

Paul Foot, 1 January 1998

The Liar: The Fall of Jonathan Aitken 
by Luke Harding and David Leigh.
Penguin, 205 pp., £6.99, December 1997, 0 14 027290 9
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... Are we all bare-faced liars?’ The question came from Jonathan Aitken, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, in January 1994. It was put to the then editor of the Guardian, Peter Preston. The words ‘we all’ referred to Aitken himself, his wife Lolicia and his faithful Arab friend Said Ayas. The answer to the question was ‘yes ...

Australian Circles

Jonathan Coe, 12 September 1991

The Tax Inspector 
by Peter Carey.
Faber, 279 pp., £14.99, September 1991, 0 571 16297 5
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The Second Bridegroom 
by Rodney Hall.
Faber, 214 pp., £13.99, August 1991, 9780571164820
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... The Catchprices live in Franklin, New South Wales, which used to be a country town twenty miles from Sydney: since then Sydney has swollen out of recognition (it’s now the second biggest city in the world, after Calcutta), and suddenly Franklin finds itself only two miles along the F4 from the outermost ...

Was it better in the old days?

Jonathan Steele: The Rise of Nazarbayev, 28 January 2010

Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan 
by Jonathan Aitken.
Continuum, 269 pp., £20, July 2009, 978 1 4411 5381 4
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... long road to nation-building. Kazakhstan was the last of the 15 republics to declare independence. Jonathan Aitken is an unlikely candidate to write a book on this subject. Since emerging from prison after his conviction for perjury in 1999 he has written books about himself and other public figures who fell from grace: Richard Nixon, his former special ...

This Condensery

August Kleinzahler: In Praise of Lorine Niedecker, 5 June 2003

Collected Works 
by Lorine Niedecker, edited by Jenny Penberthy.
California, 471 pp., £29.95, May 2002, 0 520 22433 7
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Collected Studies in the Use of English 
by Kenneth Cox.
Agenda, 270 pp., £12, September 2001, 9780902400696
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New Goose 
by Lorine Niedecker, edited by Jenny Penberthy.
Listening Chamber, 98 pp., $10, January 2002, 0 9639321 6 0
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... as to be next to useless. Niedecker spent nearly all of her life on Black Hawk Island, three miles from Fort Atkinson, a town in the rich dairy country of south-central Wisconsin with a population of around eight thousand. The state capital, Madison, is 34 miles north-west and Milwaukee about 60 ...

Granny in the Doorway

Jonathan Raban: Sheringham, 1945, 17 August 2017

... petrol coupons, we’d drive to Granny’s house in Sheringham, a long ride of nearly twenty miles. The narrow, twisting road ran past Little Snoring and on to Holt, where we often stopped to break the journey and look in shop windows. Then, from a wooded ridge, the land below us was rimmed with the mysterious sea. Here my mother switched the engine off ...

Belt, Boots and Spurs

Jonathan Raban: Dunkirk, 1940, 5 October 2017

... stay on in Aldbourne. He had been invited to a formal dinner dance at a flash hotel in Newbury, 15 miles from the village. The party was to celebrate the engagement between my mother’s brother, Peter Sandison, and Connie Major, both in their final year at Birmingham University. My Uncle Peter, as he would become, was due to join the Royal Navy as a ...

Flappers

Jonathan Barnes, 23 January 1986

The Prehistory of Flight 
by Clive Hart.
California, 279 pp., £29.75, September 1985, 0 520 05213 7
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... at 100,000 livres, it had a top speed of some 70 mph and could cover anything up to eight hundred miles a day. Finding no customers, Desforges himself took a machine to the top of the Tour Guinette and was launched by four tough peasants. He plummeted directly to the ground. And so it was with all the early birdmen. Cautious spirits, like Leonardo da ...

Keeping control

Jane Rogers, 8 January 1987

Ivan: Living with Parkinson’s Disease 
by Ivan Vaughan and Jonathan Miller.
Macmillan, 203 pp., £9.95, November 1986, 0 333 42454 9
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... Parkinson’s disease, in Ivan Vaughan’s book, becomes a fascinating, even thrilling experience. Jonathan Miller talks in his introduction of Ivan ‘surmounting his disease by regarding it as a treasured possession and not just as an abominable affliction’, and that is exactly right. The experience of the disease becomes a voyage of discovery – about ...

Chinese Leaps

Jon Elster, 25 April 1991

The Search for Modern China 
by Jonathan Spence.
Hutchinson, 876 pp., £19.95, May 1990, 0 09 174472 5
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Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1880s to the 1980s 
by Jack Gray.
Oxford, 456 pp., £35, April 1990, 0 19 913076 0
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... and soil impose perennial constraints on warfare and agriculture. A striking example is found in Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China: ‘Chiang Kai-shek [in 1949] had roughly the same range of options that had faced the southern Ming court once the Manchus had seized Peking and the North China plain 305 years before. He could try to consolidate a ...

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